This past week, I spent considerable time putting together a web site – a task that is quite new to my experience. Even though the tool that I used to design and build the site had templates and fairly recognizable editing tools, there were still any number of things that I wanted to do that I could not figure out.
When documentation and help features (and good old trial-and-error) failed me, I called the help line and was invariably assisted by a friendly technician who talked me through what I needed to do. (You can check out the results at www.L4LP.com. More on that venture some other time.)
The whole adventure got me thinking about the power of language. When I talked to a tech, I had to explain what I wanted to do, but I often didn’t have the words to really describe what was happening, no less to describe my desired ends in technical terms. Every once in a while, I had to say to the tech, “I don’t know what that means” when he or she gave me what was likely perfectly reasonable directions. I’m imagine you’ve had that experience as well.
In order to learn, we have to be able to put our questions into language that will get us to the right answers. But in order to have that language in our vocabularies, we have to have learned it somewhere. It’s a classic “Which comes first?” problem.
The idea of formal structured learning as entry into new fields of practice is being questioned these days. We see do-it-yourself-universities and we’re talking about enabling more self-provisioning of learning at the point of need. These are great advances, I think, but I also worry that we don’t know what we don’t know – and we don’t always have the language to seek it out what we need to learn.
Folks who are writing and talking about this new culture of learning tell us that more and more of our learning is going to come out of our day-to-day activities. Community of practice theory explains how people learn by engaging with others who do the same work. Constructivists tell us that we build our knowledge around the things that we already know, and language can be the very foundation of learning. But we also recognize it’s difficult to learn the real meaning of language outside of the context of its use.
All that being said, at some point we have to learn the language of the new field in which we want to engage. Some language we can “pick up.” But some fields demand a little bit of up-front orientation in order to even begin to understand the conversations about the work. In building my web site, I didn’t know what an “MX Record” was, or why that was important to seeing my site and getting my email up and running.
Old words with new meanings
The extra challenge we have in learning in the learning and development (L&D) field is that our language sounds familiar. Even the most uninitiated can tell you the meaning of terms like “objective,” “engagement,” design,” “community,” “reflection,” etc. But the initiated in L&D have very specific meanings for those terms in the context of learning, and sometimes these meanings are slightly different depending on where and how they learned the L&D meaning of the term. So we think we’re talking about the same things, but we are not.
So where am I going with these musings?
My language lesson
Here’s what is crystallizing for me. I need to pay more attention to truly learning the language of L&D. It’s easy to get by with only a surface understanding of key adult learning and instructional design concepts, and many people are capable of doing great work without being able to explain it in technical terms. But we have to be careful not to confuse the ability to talk the talk with the ability not only to walk the walk, but to know exactly where the path is leading.
I have a deeper understanding of adult learning than most, but I also know very well when I am talking at a surface level. I can recall times when I got the uncomfortable feeling that the words others were using had more meaning than I was grasping (or worse yet, that I couldn’t really explain the words I was using!). Without fail, when I took the time to learn more about these concepts, I discovered some amazing, powerful ideas that took my understanding and practice to a different level.
Because of the pace or our world, and the constant acceptance of “good enough,” it’s easy to not worry too much about nuances. But real experts use language as shorthand for deeper meaning, and it’s important that we really understand that deeper meaning if we are to be called L&D experts. There are many ways to delve into learning outside of seeking additional formal learning and learning-by-doing, and we each need to find the approaches that work for us.
I still worry about the fact that I don’t have the language to even form questions related to the management of a web site. But I’m strongly committed to having the elegant and nuanced language to talk about learning and development in organizations.
What about you? How has learning new vocabulary and concepts helped your practice of L&D? How did you even figure out that there was language out there that you needed to learn more deeply?